The UK’s global accessibility, and particularly London’s global connectivity, is underpinned by air transport. Although digital communication continues to enhance the way in which people work and do business, there will always be a demand for face-to-face contact in business and personal interactions. In 2017, airlines carried 4.1 billion passengers globally, 147 million (4.3%) were British. This represents a doubling of passengers globally since 2004, with the 2008 financial crisis causing only a one year pause in that growth. The UK’s air transport connections supported a record 15.4 million international holiday visits in 2017, associated with a £10.6bn tourism spend.
This trend looks set to continue. According to IATA, annual air passenger numbers will nearly double again to 7.8 billion by 2036. Although a lot of this growth is in Asia, UK passenger numbers are expected to grow from 220 million in 2016 to 310 million by 2036.
The UK’s answer to all this extra demand is, for now, Heathrow’s third runway, plus a variety of enhancements at other UK airports. Due to be completed in around 2026, the Heathrow expansion provides hub capacity to 2040. But Figure 1 shows how full a variety of English airports will be by then (assuming no new runways).
Figure 1: Percentage of available capacity used at selected airports, England, 2016-2050
Source: DfT Aviation Forecasts, 2017
So we suspect further airport expansion, at least at advanced stages of discussion by 2040 if not actually implemented. Given the degree to which proposals for a second runway at Gatwick Airport have been progressed, it is likely that this will be the next major airport expansion by 2040. In addition, Luton and London City are also promoting expansion to avoid becoming capacity-constrained in the next decade or so.
The regional network of airports supporting other cities are also promoting expansion, including Manchester (the only other UK airport with two runways), Bristol and Birmingham. In all, the UK has over 130 licenced aerodromes. Many of the UK’s regional airports have been boosted by rapid growth in low-cost airlines. With this airport expansion comes economic growth, through direct and indirect job creation, but also supporting business operations and tourism.
The effect of airport expansion on their cities will include enhanced transport infrastructure, including quick, easy and reliable ground access to and from airports and cities. New Crossrail and HS2 connections to Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham airports will accommodate further aviation growth and airport expansion in the UK.
Air freight transport is also experiencing growth, with tonnage globally up nearly 50% since 2004. Cargo flights compete for airspace and slots with passenger flights, putting greater pressure on mixed-mode airports. Manston Airport in Kent could potentially reopen as a cargo hub with the publication of Thanet’s draft Local Plan supporting the use. This might signal a shift towards future separate freight and passenger hubs, helping reduce freight costs and reduce surface transport needs around city airports, as well as pressure on urban industrial land near airports.
Growing consciousness of air travel’s impacts on the environment will continue to inform the pace and type of expansion, as exemplified by the legal challenge against the Government’s Heathrow expansion plans. Noise and air quality challenges might possibly be assisted by technology. Aerospace firms such as Rolls Royce, Airbus and Siemens are working to place hybrid-electric jet engines into commercial use on short haul routes by 2030, en route to the EU’s goals to reduce aviation’s CO2 emissions by 75%, NOx emissions by 90% and noise by 65%. For residents close to airports dominated by short-haul flights, this could come as a long-awaited relief.